Ring to rule them all

I’m not talking about Amazon’s Ring this time (or the One Ring), but rather all the wearables and their accelerated adoption due to cheap devices, clever marketing and use in healthcare to combat the virus.

The wearables market is dynamically growing. It grew almost 30% YOY during the 1Q of 2020 with 72.6 million units shipped. Wristband category grew 16.2% – those devices are remarkably cheap, you can get one for few dollars.
The miniaturization of transistors and sensors allowed personal trackers to become ubiquitous. First digital pedometer was built in 1965, over the time sensors like accelerometer, gyroscope and myriad of others, made the smartphones and IoT devices so useful. Now you can buy all kind of “smart” things: watches, glasses, rings, clothing and more. They can be used for variety of reasons like fitness, healthcare, enterprise.
I put the “smart” in quotes, as those things aren’t really smart – the data from those sensors is wirelessly moved to the smartphone and the remote servers. Here lies the crux of the matter. Lack of control over the generated data. Most (all?) of the devices shares information with 3rd parties, inherently making the data hackable. It can also reveal sensitive data like secret military bases. Companies who built those wearables are clearly interested in data aggregation and analysis. Selling the data is part of the business model, which can have unforeseen consequences even if the data is anonymised and aggregated like with Strava’s heat map problem (see the link above).

In tech we trust

Wearables are being used (like smartphones, which I wrote about previously), as a tool to fight the pandemic. Seems like a solid solution, as the smart bracelets can monitor temperature, oxygen levels, etc. And on top of that we can avoid close contact.
Quote from the white paper (p.5) about remote health monitoring seems to indicate otherwise:

Patients, doctors and nurses wear smart bracelets that are synced with CloudMinds’ platform (Shenzhen, China), to monitor their vital signs, including temperature, heart rate and blood oxygen levels, with the aim of catching any early signs of infection. The system has not been validated yet, and it is worth noting that wrist-worn wearables are notoriously noisy and poor at measuring these types of vital signs

New healthcare ecosystem

One of the first countries, which went on with bracelets during pandemic, was obviously China. But Lichtenstein also introduced them; first as a trial of 2000 provided by the Swiss startup Ava, then rollout for all(!) citizens is expected in Q3 according to Financial Times. As of now Lichtenstein has 89 confirmed cases and 1 death…

Push for data

One of the fastest growing wearables are Bluetooth headphones, as less and less phones have a jack input. Hearables grew 68.3% and accounted for 54.9% of the entire market. – says analysis from IDC.
Adam Molina from soundguys.com has found some peculiar asks in company ToC:
Soul Run Free Pro fitness earbuds – (asks for) information like height, weight, age, and sex… Some of the “additional information” the app collects includes things like leg length, the shoes you wear, and whether you were right or left footed and some extras like alcohol usage, injury history, and menstruation history.
In 2017 Bose Connect app was found to be tracking what users were listening to and sending that data back to the company to be sold. Now they still ask for a lot as you can see below.

  • Usage data, such as time spent using different features/settings of the product, the day and time you used the product, button presses, the media and other external sources to which you connect your product, and, as applicable, your product’s power spectrum, sound pressure level, volume levels, and streaming information (including content stored on system presets, stations played, playlists, artists, albums, songs, or podcasts), time zone, and transactional data enabling digital rights management
  • Environmental data (e.g., noise level and audio frequencies).

Those are kind of extreme examples, but given that more and more smartphones don’t have a headphone jack, those permissions needs to be examined much more closely…

Consolidation of data – Google Health example

As Google is “trying” to acquire Fitbit – bought in Dec 2019, it now faces antitrust probe in EU. Google interest in IoT business started in 2014 with home automation. It acquired Nest, then Revolv. Nest produces smart speakers, smart displays, streaming devices, thermostats, smoke detectors, routers and security systems including smart doorbells, cameras and smart locks.[2]
2018 was the time when Nest was going through the motions within corporation (it was standalone company under Alphabet then folded back into Google’s hardware unit). It bought Senosis that year – digital health startup from Seattle and tried hard to keep it a secret. There could be many reasons for the secrecy. One of them is Deep Mind (acquired by Google in 2014) used NHS data of 1.6m of patients without their consent in 2017. Apparently “hospital failed to comply with the Data Protection Act”. In November 2019 Ascension, one of the biggest health care systems in US, signed a deal with Google to process 50m of patient data as WSJ reported. Amazon has a similar cloud service as well – Amazon Comprehend Medical.
The data is supposed to be used only to provide services and in principle it would improve health care. Yet those deals lack transparency needed to trust them for most personal records. There are other issues like opt-outs, data bias, hacking and more.


Going back to Fitbit. While it posted $132m loss at the end of 2019, it sold over 100m units to date. Google’s offered in July 2020 to not use Fitbit’s health data for ad targeting. Nest pledged to keep its user data separate from Google’s after it was acquired in 2014. But Google began asking users to let it merge the logs in 2019.
Analysts suggested that part of the attraction for Google was the fact Fitbit had formed partnerships with several insurers in addition to a government health program in Singapore.
Google’s sister companies like Calico and Verily, are other forays into health care business.
We can assume Google will expand into the e-health aggressively (and insurance too), given the circumstances . The growing market is perfectly suited for Google, which already have troves of personal data. Issue of connecting consumer and medical records is already subject of lawsuit against Google and University of Chicago.

Conclusion

The wearables and IoT market will continue to expand and Big Tech will surely fight for the piece of the pie. They are ready to fight the long game. Especially Google is in a position to undermine competition, having control over Play Store and (partly) Android OS.
Consequences of combining biometric data could be more serious than we realize. It would facilitate even better prediction models.
Machine learning algorithm can analyze the biometric data from sensors determining your personality type, what you are excited about (and who are you sleeping with), giving even more powerful way to impact our behaviour and get unprecedented insights of our emotions and psyche.
E-Health businesses will try to reshape and grow the market (counted in hundreds of billions – $247.84 billion in 2020). Possibilities of e-healthcare are vast, but the current model is broken and dangerous. Tech giants dominant position will be bad for people and market in the long run.

18/12/2020 Update: Google won EU antitrust approval with the several restrictions. It will store the data separately and will not use the Fitbit’s data for Google Ads. Users will decide whether to store their data on Google’s or Fitbit’s account (as it happened before this choice may be swayed by dark design or limited functionality). Google will maintain access to health data through Fitbit Web API, again with user consent.

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